When Salvador Cisneros’ students arrive at the nation’s most prestigious Mexican dance competition, it’s a little bit like when the 1990s Chicago Bulls used to walk onto a basketball court.
All eyes go to the commanding members of his troupe, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council Ballet Folklorico.
“When groups come to the competition, they come to take the title away from them,” said Martha Gomez-Cuestas, co-director of the Acadez Folklorico & Contemporary National Dance Competition, held in San Antonio.
In April, after competing against 62 traditional-dance groups from Mexico, Texas, California, Colorado, Florida and North Carolina, Mr. Cisneros’ dancers took home 11 trophies, including the top award, which they also won in 2014: Best of the Best.
“It’s like winning an Oscar,” said Gisela Nevarez, the bookkeeper for the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council.
Mr. Cisneros, 53, was found dead Aug. 12 at his home in Back of the Yards, said Craig Chico, executive director of the nonprofit council. The cause was believed to be a heart attack, according to Mr. Cisneros’ cousin, Jesus Romero.
Born on a Zacatecas ranch to a family of teachers and schooled in dance in Guanajuato,Mr. Cisneros taught traditional Mexican steps to thousands during 18 years at the BOTY council at 1751 W. 47th St., where students called him “Maestro” as a sign of respect.
The folkloric dances of Mexico vary widely among its 31 states, from mariachi-influenced Jalisco, to polka strains in the music of Sonora — a relic of Czech, German and Polish immigration to Mexico — to the marimba sounds of Chiapas, according to Nevarez.
Mr. Cisneros’ lessons evoked the swagger of cowboys and the flourish of flipped skirts, in sequins, hot pink, orange and blue. The costumes he used were remarkable for authenticity and detail. Many, he bought in Mexico. Others were crafted by students’ parents.
The Maya-influenced costumes of his concheros dance — thought to date to pre-colonial days — pop with headpieces of 90 peacock feathers, Nevarez said.
His classes rooted children and helped keep them off the street, according to Chico.
“Most of the kids he taught come from a low-income urban area with a propensity for high violence,” Chico said. Through their maestro, “They made lifelong friendships, and they learned physical and mental discipline. Most of them are on the honor roll.”
Pierre Manzo, 18, studied dance with Mr. Cisneros for 15 years. The graduate of De La Salle Institute won a full four-year scholarship to Northwestern University, where he plans to study biology.
“He taught us punctuality, he taught us respect, he taught us responsibility, he taught us discipline,” Manzo said. “You had to be there on time. We had to do things with 100 percent effort.
“He knew when to be a teacher, and when to be a friend,” Manzo said. “A lot of times, I went to him regarding help with school on math problems.’’
After studying with Mr. Cisneros, “It’s never enough for me to be mediocre at a step,” said Manzo’s cousin, Edna Sanchez, 20, a St. Ignatius alum who is studying health sciences at DePaul University. “He taught us to do it over and over and over till you had it.”
“The greatest impact he had on me was the faith he showed in me to become something great, regardless of the odds that were against people from that neighborhood,” Genova Izguerra said. “He was all about empowering and showing students that with practice and dedication, one can get anywhere.”
“He made them not forget their culture, to remember where they came from, and to be proud of it,” Gomez-Cuestas said.
In addition to folk dances, Mr. Cisneros also choreographed new dances, including an award-winning homage to the music ofrancheracomposer Jose Alfredo Jimenez.
“The choreography in the new work was amazing,” said dancer-choreographer Amalia Viviana Basanta Hernandez, speaking from Mexico, where her mother, thelegendaryAmalia Hernandez, founded the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico in 1952.
Mr. Cisneros’ students ranged in age from 4 to grandparents, Chico said. Members of his troupe have performed at the Harris Theater, Bulls games, Millennium Park, Navy Pier, Soldier Field, Purdue University and Toyota Park.
He is survived by his parents, Domitila and Salvador; a sister, Isabel; and three brothers, Martin, Rafael and Alejandro.
Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday at Wolniak Funeral Home, 5700 S. Pulaski. Mr. Cisneros was cremated, and his ashes are to be returned to Mexico.